Martyr at the Picnic Table

Leagues of the afflicted collected the liquefied fat of hanged criminals — a ghastly forefather of ibuprofen — in cups and pots. The intact body is supposed to be an expression of divine favor. But they will renew it as often as they must, ad infinitum until the body finds its niche in unalienable life, so that its executioner may know the restless charge of firebrands. Mamie leaves her son’s glass-topped casket open for the funeral. The body of the saint becomes a stage. She was kept alive by those who couldn’t fathom the idea that a body once inhabited by a holy soul could be dismissed as a vessel of dust and earthworms. Consider the apocryphal tale of St. B. This was the common person, as malodorous as a carrion flower. Fire engulfs him like a coat. But imagine the congeries of pilgrims to Mecca and Canterbury. They had tasted blood before, white and black alike, but never so publicly. ¤
Moribund flesh and viscera have been likened to food in the ways that they are dressed, vitalized, and virtually consumed by the living. My niece will be killed. Custom was held as law. While the souls of saints gloried in the ether, subsisting on light and air, living hedonists occupied themselves with dead chaff. Air became a macrocosm of the kitchen and the courier of wretched stenches. Aromatic jasmine collided with the fetor of latrines. The blood is as viscous as fruit spread, a “red ooze” that was “seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly / Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders / And over all of Earth and mars.” Emmett’s blood terraformed the earth. Clare’s cadaver was drained of blood — the spirit’s conduit, what Camporesi calls “the edible substance” — which was then kept in vials where it boiled during times of cataclysm and woe. A taste of Christ’s transubstantial body and a swig of His blood give rise to a memorial culture in which food is the direct link between death and life. Lawrence, archdeacon of the early Church, who lived during the age of Christian persecution. Few were so dementedly eager to disfigure themselves as the saints. And so Emmett’s body was its own advocate and intercessor. It is a burlesque of the strange fruit swinging from the tree, in the open air. The four nuns are said to have marveled at the woman’s gallbladder and heart, the latter of which they severed in two. In the schema of black martyrdom, if death is the mytheme — the invariable element that unites all other myths — then the corpse’s contours, its stench and solidity, its dissolution and repose determine how and by whom it can be mobilized. A friar caught her before she could hack off her nose and lips, the iconography of her great allure. As historian Thomas Laqueur writes, “The corpse represents something radically different from itself.” Whether or not Margaret’s soul is immortal, imagination has prolonged her — and others like her — in ways that were not inevitable. When the Roman prefect demanded that Lawrence cede the Vatican’s wealth to the empire, Lawrence responded by presenting a horde of the poor and diseased. After receiving payment for their confession, Emmett’s killers walked free. While the modern world built its cranks and muskets, hermits and anchorites embraced guillotines, stakes, arrows, swords, and fasting — anything to ruin the flesh and subordinate their individuality to the symbol of divine mercy they could become. who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or wither they are to be scattered? 
They transport him to a scaffold in a mule cart. The post-mortem sweetness of the incorruptible’s body was a consolation prize from God. Perhaps Emmett whistles at Bryant or says something bold and flirtatious as he exits the store. Before castrating the lynch victim, a man weighs the accused’s scrotum in his hand like a meat merchant. The space between individuals turns into void. Like triumphant Achilles, the denizens watched as this Hector was dragged through the town by horses. MAY 30, 2018

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. It denies the exactness of one’s pain and allows the viewer to indulge in limitless orgies of misery. Holy corpses were tampered with like any well-dressed holiday turkey, prepared as they were with unguents, poultices, and greases. The story of the inciting incident is as contested as St. Their slogans (“I can’t breathe”) echo and subsume the dead. The witnesses claimed that, embedded in the abbess’s heart, were the Arma Christi, the instruments associated with Christ’s Passion. These models are useful for more than the writing of a martyrology, a Golden Legend or Actes and Monuments for condemned blacks. They cradle Emmett in their hosannas and accommodate him in their dreams. The specificity of the violence — Washington’s body, and no one else’s — was made general. Clare of Montefalco, an Augustinian abbess, is telling. This one was shot at more than 100 times, but that boy only took one. This Christ-figure becomes part of the bedrock that undergirds the nation’s Second Reconstruction. The expressive sacra rappresentazione (sacred performance) exhibited by Polycarp or St. Though he was likely beheaded, legend has it that he was placed on a gridiron and cooked alive. The black martyr lives. Her corpse was not found to be embalmed, mummified, or dressed with spices. Chroniclers wrote that the corpse exuded an odor of sanctity. Black literati and intelligentsia hallow the boy that had no refuge in an American wasteland. Camporesi believes this was one of many collective delusions that drifted across the medieval age. These bodies, scoured by crows and all but stuffed into the maws of mobs, glimmered in their chaos. The corpse is revived in every retelling and dies interminably. Emmett Till finds new life as a political totem. The questions come from a place of knowledge. Ours is an age of exceptional harvest. Baldwin likens this genre of public execution to a Fourth of July picnic. And so it was. He writes that the “wind blew the smoke from the fire across the clearing” into the protagonist’s eyes and nose. Emmett plummets into dark waters and, on the third day, is found by two boys gone fishing. How little the facts matter. The patron saint of the dispossessed, canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1728, has been housed inside her glass shrine for centuries. Similarities between the treatment of two peculiar types of corpses have been alluded to, but left understated. King, or the unwilling lamb, George Stinney? E. When we talk about the black martyr, do we mean the retributive, self-destructive prophet, like Nat Turner? Jerome and the brutalization of lynch victims Henry Smith and Jesse Washington are similarly theatrical, notwithstanding some important distinctions between them. He rode into the city on the back of a donkey. The woman does not know if her life was worth more than that of the “Dark Villain.” Her Fine Prince, her husband, beats her in front of their children and she envisages blood. We populate it with imaginary emblems. News of the “Waco horror” resounded in nooks and dailies from America to Europe. The gentle abbess, stuck in time, embodied sprightliness and longevity. Empathy is possession. He and some other boys skip church and enter a grocery store, where young proprietress Carolyn Bryant tends to business. It is a story the narrators would rather not tell. I was 10 when I saw the images of that 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who died most horribly in Money, Mississippi, 1955. She set out a jar
Of her new quince preserve. Furious observers noted that the body laid unattended for hours under the sun. Their fear is predictive. His flesh is rigmarole and confusion. Mourners blow breath into his battered body in an incredible act of necromancy. Its ghost threads through Laura Nelson, Denmark Vesey,  Addie Mae Collins, Mary Turner, Charles Lang, Michael Griffith, Yvette Smith, Stephon Clark, and Emmett Till. Her cadaver’s putridity would confirm what was already known about her tainted soul. They have already been answered and the protesters know this. This juncture is what the postwar historian C. Her old eyes glisten with desire and the sublime. Brown’s corpse was the difference between the law as it was and as it should be. At 16, she fled with a nobleman from Montepulciano. The altar is the work of sculptor Gano di Fazio, but the reliquary was designed by Baroque painter and craftsman Pietro da Cortona. He is the bellwether of aborted democracy. After some struggle, his body goes home to Chicago. After Clare succumbed to illness, a group of ecstatic nuns opened her corpse with a razor, removed her intestines, and placed them into earthenware jars. In times of war, encomia were written to praise the anonymous dead. For we perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice. Emmett’s apostles rendered in speech what the boy had no tongue to say. DuBois and the NAACP used the photographs of Waco resident Fred Gildersleeve to promote their anti-lynching campaign. When they finish, the deceased’s head is blackened pulp. The martyr figure often whets his performative abilities against the stone of persecution. Lawrence in flames. Inevitably, smell guided taste. All but her head and feet are covered by a sand-colored tunic. It is meant to warn. In her twilight, she reprimanded vice and experienced many ecstasies before dying in a small cell within the church that would become her temple. With the help of civil rights activist Elisabeth Freeman, W. They architect marches and vigils that evoke the agitations of the 20th century. Lynching had not reached its apotheosis, but the publication of Washington’s mutilated corpse tempered rhetoric in support of the practice. The martyr of the Third Reconstruction was born at the instance his body was penetrated by six bullets and Darren Wilson’s fretful imagination. He asks to be shot instead of ceded to a mob of thousands. For most, they are palatable in aggregate alone, zooming toward that asymptote where the individual is infinitely indistinguishable from the group. St. The poet Gwendolyn Brooks writes a ballad that fictionalizes Carolyn Bryant. More likely, he supposes, the thorned coronet was a bundle of white nerves, the “nails” nothing more than dark tissue. Late historian and gastronomist Piero Camporesi identifies body parts as the “tormented protagonists” of the Middle Ages. The Passion of Mike Brown enthralled us because we were uncertain what had led to its lurid conclusion. The protagonist senses “the odor of something burning which was both sweet and rotten.” What do they taste, these children, women, and men? Their questions (“Is my son next?” “Is my niece safe?”), at once rhetorical and earnest, organize the myth’s structure and dictate how it will be told. Margaret was not an obvious candidate for sanctitude. 18,  Genius
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member  or  donate here. From the other side of a translucent casket stared the envious onlooker. ¤
Sixty years later, the unrest in Ferguson would become a new iteration of an aged myth. They were unintelligible, unnaturally oriented, decontextualized. But smells were mercurial and ambiguous. The interpretation of Emmett’s body was unusually cogent: blameless flesh was inconsonant with a culpable, bloody empire. It was an expression of insidious, unchanging folkways. Many children at the killing ground were on their lunch hour. His grisly wounds testified to the Lord’s greatness more directly than a zealot. His martyrdom was one that “all desire[d] to imitate, seeing that it was after the pattern of the Gospel of Christ.” The saint’s corpse proselytized. Death may canonize his fugitive sufferings, but alive he can acquire the gaping stigmata and stinging gashes that testify to his capacity to watch the flesh deform. Many little black girls and boys hear Till’s story at a young age. The cadaver stiffened by rigor mortis is yet limber in our cultural theater. Accounts of the renowned martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, presaged the descriptions of black lynchings that would fill 20th-century newspapers and postcards. One form of cannibalism persists in the Catholic tradition as the Eucharist. ¤
When James Baldwin wrote his short story “Going to Meet the Man,” he thought of Jesse Washington, a black man from Waco, Texas, accused of assaulting and murdering a white lady in 1916. Smith tears away from his post hollering and burning, and when he crawls away, they toss him back. Its narrators are masterful, always finding some way to make it new. Hot irons scorch his feet, his tongue is set aflame, and his eyes are gouged. The sensational account of St. He is told that he approaches destiny ad quod damnum. Its skin is bloated and its teeth are missing. Yes, my son is next. Two blocks from the funeral parlor, Mamie Till smells a “most terrible odor.” When she enters, she doesn’t recognize what lies in front of her. According to Catholic orthodoxy, Margaret is incorrupt. Emmett, with the hesitant approval of his mother Mamie Till-Bradley, is visiting his family Down South. ¤
Henry Smith is an American Negro from Paris, Texas, an outlaw who killed the white baby Myrtle Vance in 1893. Officials wanted to keep the body away from the public because they feared it would be hailed as an imitation of Christ. They bathe Smith with oil. In times of medieval sickness, its organs were thought by some to contain medicinal unctions and oils. Hers was not the only flesh to be adored as health-giving. St. Its gnarled limbs pleaded eloquently. Margaret, though inanimate, is still a prominent actress. The skin on her face is ashen and dry, and it looks as though someone had placed a burlap sack over her head and pulled taut until her eye sockets and mouth were outlined in the cloth. The tendons in his arms snap like poor bridge cables and he reaches for his eye sockets with crisp stumps. She
Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
Drew more strips from the meat case. The casket rests on a marble altar, on which scenes from Margaret’s life are engraved. He is beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 74-pound cotton-gin fan noosed to his neck by barbed wire. His blood flowed so profusely that it snuffed the fire. The bodies of martyred saints were minced, pared, cured, and roasted. He will fit into a martyr’s mold as though it were a tailored suit. The pious listener accepts the necessity of the decapitated head. In some regions of Europe, bone ashes were imbibed in broth and wine while skull fragments were consumed to combat headaches and epilepsy. The unrecognizable corpse was — and still is — an object of great interest because it let empathizers shape something that no longer had an identity. At the story’s closing, the protagonist tells his son, “I reckon we better get over there and get some of that food before it’s all gone.” In truth, attendees stole Washington’s bones, genitalia, and teeth. Margaret has been dead since the 13th century, but her corpse bears no evidence of putrefaction. The by-products of dysentery and reeking spoil banks mingled with bitter berries. She was born in Laviano, Umbria, to a peasant family. The law, for all its pompous austerity, was impotent. The spectator gorges on the suffering of the victim. Some of these are born in literature: history books, librettos, novels. Tens of thousands flock to see the child, and images of his body metastasize in black-owned publications across the country. The lynching, the most notable of its day, was condemned by most. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
Did well. Like Mamie Till before her, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was inducted as the Black Madonna. Margaret could not tolerate her own beauty. (Of Clifton, Ellison wrote: “Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer”)
The organizers of Black Lives Matter are storytellers. Maybe we speak of the messiah, like Dr. The saint mutates in successive chronicles written by disciples, clergy, and anonymous scribes until the historical personage is fractured. That is, the bodies of Christian saints and the mutilated remains of African-American martyrs. The particularities of one’s death allow us to better understand both the corpse’s appeal as a fetish object and its usefulness as currency. As she awaits the return of her knight-errant, she labors in the kitchen:
Her bacon burned. These claims withstood the scrutiny of bishops, theologians, doctors, and civic judges. In the year 155 AD, at the order of Irenarch Herod, soldiers arrested Polycarp and brought him to an arena. It’s his little boy today, her girl tomorrow, and mine is somewhere in line. As proof of her contrition, she asked to be dragged through the streets like an ass by a rope around her neck. The maturation of burial practices signified the presence of civilization, as though the division between brute and man was the degree to which one embellished the dead, cast glory upon them, and escorted them into memory. The next day, the Aurora Daily Express describes the collection of Smith’s remains: “Every scrap of his clothing was sought by relic hunters, and when all was over fragments of his bones were carried away also.”
Hagiographic texts are babels of undisciplined history and invention. ¤
In the Basilica di Santa Margherita, which overlooks the expansive Val di Chiana in Tuscany, Margaret of Cortona’s relic is kept in a small casket. An eye stretches across the jaw and she can see daylight through its head. The corpse, as a category, is a storehouse for the fantasies of the living. Archetypes, in other words, the shadows we cast on the ground. Its nectar shocked the palate and stirred the insensate masses. The same basic story retold, with myriad permutations. Sundry scents were discombobulating, in flux. The faceless martyr sustains a community based on pain. When he refused to renounce his Savior, we are told that the crowd prepared his pyre with “timber and faggots.” A fire was lit and then:
The fire, making the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round about the body of the martyr; and it was there in the midst, not like flesh burning, but like [a loaf in the oven or like] gold and silver refined in a furnace. Some were sold, others kept. Our understanding of martyrdom must be fluid. His mourners were not his own. She is a small woman. Franny Nudelman, a historian, criticizes the abstraction of pain in her book John Brown’s Body. The beautiful death was true. Nudelman warns against the impulse to glorify and conflate the anonymous dead. Brutalized bodies were denied the grave, and those that were disfigured into anonymity were more likely to be upheld as martyr symbols. An intoxicating fragrance, maybe of juniper or rosewater, hovered around her and deflected the corruptive heat of summer. When the flames failed to kill the bishop, an executioner stabbed him to death. Her inner state reflected the extent of her immersion in the material world. Vann Woodward calls “the twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history.” The catalog of executed blacks is Homeric in scope and the boundary between Ralph Ellison’s tragic character Tod Clifton and casualties like Laquan McDonald, Amadou Diallo, or Philando Castile is fading, if it has not already dissipated. They were rather like paid eulogists, grieving for whomever required commemoration. There were thousands of Emmett Tills circulating in private night terrors. Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law abduct Emmett from his uncle’s home that evening. Eyewitnesses read Brown’s body as an archetypal construction. This one is set in Milwaukee, that one near Detroit. If her face was daubed with lily-root and saffron tincture, her innards stank like worm-infested feces. Smith’s punishment must be as savage as the man. Nearly 10 years later, when the nobleman was found mangled in a forest, Margaret moved with her son to Cortona where she led a life of penitence and self-mortification. ¤
Aaron Robertson is a James Reston Reporting Fellow for The New York Times. But, Sir Thomas Browne asks, who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Among the grisly inventory were a miniature crucifix, the Scourge, the Crown of Thorns, and three nails — a verification of the Trinity’s presence. Legends are recast and horrific morality tales are authored by gunfire. Her blood and the blood of the Villain, who is the innocent child, commingle. When one of his sides was sufficiently burnt, he is said to have asked his executioners to turn him over. Following the inquisition, St.